JESUS GOES INTO THE TOMB ALONE AND COMES BACK WITH LAZARUS. SO WHAT?
We read the story once every three years and always on the fifth Sunday of Lent. Kind of a strange story, and rather frightening even for today's modern standards. After all, the guy has been dead for three days and even Lazarus' sisters think that Jesus is in for a really bad experience when he rolls back the stone and goes in to the tomb to see the rotting corpse. (Sorry for the gruesome image, but if we want to get anything out of this gospel passage we have to visualize and use our other senses to imagine how all of this raising from the dead stuff actually worked).
I wanted to use Caravaggio's version of this miracle because he reverses what we normally see in paintings. Christ is usually the brightest figure When this scene is pictured, but here he is almost in shadow and the light is shining directly on the corpse of Lazarus. What is special about this? The artist always uses the basic earthly things to transmit a sense of the divine. That sounds really heavy doesn't it? But actually it is very cool. For Caravaggio, even the most awful things of daily life such as death, can be a window to the divine. The decaying corpse of Lazarus is coming back to life and if you look at the faces of the people in the painting you will see that some are glued to the miracle, others are horrified, some looking the other way.
But if you draw a line from Christ's finger to Lazarus you will see that the line ends right on the heart of Lazarus. Really, it's a point of personal encounter with Jesus for Lazarus. The picture is chaotic. So is life. But if you look at Jesus and then at Lazarus, the painting becomes just the encounter between the two of them. There is peace and power here. In the shadow of death, Lazarus encounters the Lord of life. While his face may still look composed in death, his heart is infused with Christ, the light of the world. The light doesn't come from Lazarus, rather its source is coming from Christ even though he is in shadow. It is not yet his time to reveal himself to the world. But Lazarus knows. For Lazarus, this was a real and lasting resurrection even though he had to die again. He would no longer be afraid ever again. What happened to him, happens to us when we die with faith. You'll notice, that this miracle has nothing of the brightness of Easter. That's because all of the light is centered on Lazarus and his life giving meeting with Jesus. The true reality of Easter is still hidden from everyone else. The rest of the people in the picture don't really understand what's happening or how this is happening. But what is really fascinating about Caravaggio's painting is that he manages to show that resurrection is real even in the world of shadows where flickering visions of love and light and family care are sometimes overshadowed by the darkness of doubt and despair.
What makes this painting powerful is that Caravaggio is able to firmly plant hope in our souls for everlasting life even while we live in this world. The person who looks at this picture can identify with everyone except Jesus and Lazarus. Lazarus reminds us of a horror movie and his death and decomposition scare us greatly, while Jesus, in the shadows, is a mysterious and powerful figure. Yet, the moment we look at only Jesus and Lazarus, the artist lets us in briefly on this awesome encounter and we feel peace and hope in the midst of a painting full of shadows and fears. And if you think like I do, I fully expect the figure of Jesus to turn 90° and point his finger directly at me and look at me and give me life and light forever.